At one end of the workforce spectrum are those who obsess over their careers. They drive themselves and everyone around them nuts in their relentless drive to be the best, most productive, most successful whatever. At the other end of the scale are perpetual screw-ups trying to squeeze as much out of the system with as little effort as possible.
Somewhere in between is an optimal operating point – a relatively narrow range of folks with both a successful career and a happy life. I’m not just talking about work-life balance here. That’s part of it, but I’m also talking about making the most of your career. Actually achieving your potential.
You see – and this may come as a real surprise to all you overachievers out there – pushing yourself too hard will ultimately backfire.
You see, compulsively worrying about your career doesn’t just have diminishing returns; it will cause you to slip and fall right off that corporate ladder you’re climbing. That’s because most of us – especially those who stress over this stuff – are our own worst enemy. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s a true story that just might change your mind.
Years ago I knew a manager who had everything going for him. He was smart, confident, and charismatic. He was a young up-and-coming business star with a great future ahead of him. And he had just married an amazing woman.
The only problem is the guy obsessed about his career. He wasn’t moving up fast enough, making enough money, or getting enough perks. Nothing was good enough. He was too hard on himself, too stressed, and too self-absorbed. And that kept him from becoming the leader he was capable of being.
Not only did his work performance and effectiveness suffer, so did his personal relationships. One day, his wife had had enough and left him. The poor guy had no idea why all these bad things were suddenly happening to him. All he knew was he was about as miserable as he could be.
Having more or less bottomed out, my friend shared his frustration with a far more mature and experienced associate who ran a company in the UK. On the way to Heathrow airport in London, the Brit conveyed a bit of advice his father had given him long ago, advice that had served him well over the years.
He said, “The only true success is happiness.”
That simple phrase was like a lightening bolt going off in my friend’s head. On the flight home, in a moment of clarity and perspective, he realized his priorities had been skewed. He realized his relentless drive to succeed was far from the panacea he had always dreamt it would be. It had, in fact, only led him to this sad, dark place.
Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, and this guy was just desperate enough to reverse course. Granted, nobody changes all at once, and he was no exception. Letting go was the hardest thing he had ever done. Still, he knew he was on the right track, and that kept him moving forward in spite of the obstacles ahead.
Sure enough, that day was the pivotal point from which his career began to take off. That’s when he began to achieve all the things he’d long dreamed of.
It’s been just over 20 years since that fateful day in London and the flight home to L.A., where I was living at the time. It feels like yesterday, and not just because it changed my life. I keep that experience close at hand, as a reminder, should I ever begin to slip back into my old ways. And now you know my little secret.
Incidentally, I did get my wife back; we’ll be married 24 years next month. Go figure.
I’ve had quite a bit of time to ponder the plight of the overachiever and the mysteries of what drives people since my own personal journey began. Here’s what I’ve come up with, so far.
Everyone is different; there is no one-size-fits-all model for what motivates people to strive to achieve great things. That said, I’ve observed a relatively large number of executives and business leaders who, like me, can be their own worst enemy. And, in my experience, one thing appears to be remarkably consistent.
Those of us who are driven – I mean really driven, like our butts are on fire and that next promotion is a big old bucket of water – are usually motivated by events that occurred long ago. Whether we grew up with adversity, competition, or trauma, it creates in us an overwhelming need to prove ourselves, to demonstrate that we’re deserving of survival.
And while that need can and often does lead to business success, it can also be a slippery slope that leads to career limiting or self-destructive behavior. When that happens or when you feel stuck, question your assumptions, your goals, and what drives you to achieve them. Oftentimes, simply letting go, lightening up, and not taking yourself so seriously, is the key to achieving everything you’ve dreamed of.
And remember, the only true success is happiness.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.